by Adrian Vermeule, in Church Life Journal.
In 1970, at the age of 82, Carl Schmitt published an essay called “On the TV Democracy: The Aggressiveness of Progress.” By then his moral sense and spirit were hopelessly decayed by decades of self-pity and attempted self-exculpation without repentance, but his instinct for withering diagnosis of the pathologies of liberalism had not left him; and here Schmitt diagnoses the peculiarly restless and dynamic character of liberalism and its relentless quest for progress.
Schmitt argues that putatively depoliticized liberalism—the supposed overcoming of the friend-enemy distinction— rests on a “through-going wish for rest and peace and security and order.” This wish, however, is troubled by what liberalism unleashes:
This wish is now permanently threatened by that on which we live, namely, by progress. There is nothing more aggressive than industrial progress constantly driven ever further by science. This is aggressiveness in a monstrous form . . . This is the immanent contradiction of the compulsion to progress with the equally strong wish for rest, peace, security and order.
I know some North Atlantic demi-intellectuals bridle at the very mention of Schmitt. On the other hand, Continental Europeans and Latin Americans, uninfected by intellectualized moral Puritanism, are systematically more open-minded and tolerant, one might say catholic, in this regard. Let me then offer a far higher authority who offers a strikingly similar diagnosis: the Holy Father, Francis. In his great encyclical laying out an integral approach to the environment and human societies, Laudato Si’, Francis begins with the fundamental observation that there has been a “continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet,” and that “the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (Laudato Si’ § 18). Moreover, he notes, “the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet”—and this will turn out to be a crucial point about mass political psychology—“it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity” (Laudato Si’ §18). The consequence is something we see around us daily. As Francis puts it, “following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach” (Ibid. §19). We see this more critical approach to the incumbency of a restless, dynamic liberalism in almost every new election throughout Europe and the Anglo-American world, in academic theorizing about politics, and indeed in the entire outlook of the rising generation.
Schmitt and Francis, in their different registers, suggest the problem I want to identify and discuss here: the relentless dynamic of liberalism tends to undermine the “peace, security and order” that liberalism itself promises. What liberalism cannot obey are the natural principles or, if you like, natural laws of political rule that go under the label of Ragion di Stato, principles and laws that no ruler can forever defy without undermining the very conditions of his rule.
Minds more powerful than my own have argued that liberalism, in one way or another, undermines itself. The mechanisms proposed to this end are numerous and various. My project is to add one such mechanism, whose claim to consideration is that it captures the distinctive nature of sacramental liberalism—an essentially religious movement and set of commitments, with a distinctive soteriology, eschatology and ecclesiology. To the extent this mechanism has been overlooked, it is because earlier theorists were oblivious to the categories of constitutional and political theology, to the theological and liturgical dimensions of liberalism, and to Cardinal Manning’s dictum: “all human conflict is ultimately theological.”
The central thought I will advance is that liberal agents behave irrationally in an instrumental-rationality sense, although not in a value-rationality sense. They are compelled, by the peculiarly dynamic character of their faith and its accompanying sacramental liturgy, to violate a central precept of the natural art of politics. This is the precept to not unnecessarily disrupt the traditions, the mores and life-ways, of the broad mass of the population, or, where those traditions must be disrupted in substance, at least to preserve the outward forms of tradition. Liberalism is incapable of respecting this constraint because to do so would betray its inner nature, which is to publicly and conspicuously celebrate its great liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past. That is a benchmark which necessarily changes with each celebration of the liturgy, requiring new enemies to play the part of the villain.
Given this, the dynamism of liberalism is structural, not contingent. It constantly, and at an ever-increasing tempo, disrupts deeply-cherished traditions among its subject populations, stirring unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash—whether expressed through the electoral process in democratic polities, through popular unrest and rebellions in nondemocratic polities, or through both. Put in terms familiar at the University of Chicago, in whose dark foundries I was apprenticed, liberal rule stands upon a sacramental political theology that creates a problem of incentive-compatibility.
I also believe—and this is the part in which evidence will be sorely lacking—that this process or mechanism accounts for some important share of the increasing conflicts between liberalism and various populist-democratic forces and movements in recent years. I will offer some stylized episodes as examples, but the main aim is merely to suggest a mechanism—to show that liberalism’s puzzling, compulsive departures from the benchmarks of political prudence supplied by the ragion di stato result from the distinctive character of its sacramental commitments.
What is Liberalism?
We have to distinguish liberalism as a theory in the history of political thought from liberalism as a regime in actually existing societies (liberalism as a concrete type of political-theological order). I take liberalism as theory to be a family of doctrines, of which theological, political, and economic liberalism are the main branches. All these descend from a master commitment to the autonomy of the individual, of the individual’s reason and desires, implying that the main aim of political action must be an ever-greater liberation of human capacities from the constraints—political, social, economic, even biological—that hamper the maximum fulfillment of that autonomy, consistent with a like fulfillment for all.
But liberalism as theory is not my interest here—let alone the recondite academic versions of that theory, worked out to the nth decimal, with distinctions among perfectionist and anti-perfectionist liberalism and so forth. The latter is definitely not my topic and I will be impatient with complaints that I have not spoken to the latest minor paper on Rawlsianism or the latest argument for transhumanism.
Rather I mean to focus, in a sociological vein, on sacramental liberalism as a lived and very concrete type of political-theological order. Liberal orders have spread around the globe, yet are no longer as dominant as they were in their heyday. A majority of humanity has probably always lived under non-liberal forms of government, but recent years have seen a distinct recession of the liberal tide, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America. They typically feature a similar array of institutions, including electoral institutions that select among elites competing for leadership in Schumpeterian fashion, and some version of economic liberalism more or less constrained by regulation and redistributive taxation. They also feature a similar array of public commitments and official rhetoric—public “secularism,” individual autonomy, and egalitarianism, “tolerance” except of the intolerant, and aggressive attempts to police non-liberal forces internally and non-liberal regimes externally, often by force.
Liberalism is also pervasively and, I believe, essentially sacramental. It has a critical dimension of political theology, and that the behavior of liberal agents often cannot be adequately understood without this lens. Liberalism, on this view, is best understood as an imperfectly secularized offshoot of Christianity, whose main features are not only a notorious “immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton,” but an odd and distinctive mix of Pelagianism and Gnosticism—a mix that, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, seems much on Pope Francis’ mind and on the minds of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the recent Vatican document Placuit Deo, which offers a withering critique of both heresies and their effects on contemporary economic, social, and political life. Sacramental liberalism thus goes far beyond politics in the narrow sense of the struggle over control of public institutions. It both shapes, and is shaped by, a distinctive culture, even distinctive modes of dress, personal decoration, and speech, such that it is often possible to identify a believer in sacramental liberalism on sight, or after a few seconds of conversation.
Liberalism as a lived faith centers around an anti-liturgy, the Festival of Reason, which celebrates and re-enacts the dawning of rational freedom against the dark background of unreasoned, obscurantist tradition, equated with a system of oppression, or at best, idiotismus. If I may be forgiven a self-quotation:
Light is defined by contrast, so the Festival requires that the children of light spy out and crush the forces of darkness, who appear in ever-changing guises, before the celebration can be renewed. The essential components of the Festival are twofold: the irreversibility of Progress and the victory over the Enemy, the forces of reaction. Taken in combination, these commitments give liberalism its restless and aggressive dynamism.
The Festival of Reason must disrupt settled equilibria of “rest, peace, and order” in order to fulfill its self-expression as an overcoming of entrenched, irrational structures of oppression and obscurantism.
Only this political-theological account, in my view, explains so many concrete puzzles of lived experience within a liberal order. Why, for example, is it possible to encounter people, even intellectuals of (by some measure or other) high intelligence, who say patently incoherent things like “I’m working for change”—as though change by itself were good? By the same token, why are the heroes and canonized saints of liberalism invariably agents who have produced social or political “change,” rather than those who have, say, fended off “change”? Where the celebration of disruption of the past, is itself the sacramental compulsion, however, this fundamental asymmetry is no longer puzzling. “Working for Change” is value-rational action. Whether or not it is an instrumentally rational action is a question I will turn to shortly.
Another puzzle involves the fact that liberal imagination has an ever-receding horizon. Whatever the question, whether race relations, women’s rights, gender identity, or what have you, the good liberal says “we have made some progress, but there is a long way to go.” But of course, even after more progress is made, the goal never seems to have come any closer. If the real aim is always to create a justification for fresh and ever-repeated celebrations of the Festival, however, this makes perfect sense.
A final puzzle, one I have touched on elsewhere: why do liberal institutions and intellectuals react so much more aggressively towards Poland, Hungary, and Brexit than to Saudi Arabia or China, when the latter must be far worse on any measurable dimensions of interest to liberalism? The only answer is that the first group embodies, for liberalism, the horror of retrogression, which profoundly threatens the liberal soteriology of continual progress. From the standpoint of the Church of Liberty, what Saudi Arabia does is the equivalent of simply not attending Mass; but what Poland has done is the equivalent of disrupting the ceremony and trampling the Sacred Host.
In general, there is a disconnect between the official rhetoric of liberal orders, which speaks coolly of a depoliticized public sphere, and the experience of life within liberal regimes—the furious passion of liberalism’s vanguard; the Saturday political marches that seem in some obvious way an act of communal worship; the denunciations of politicians and corporate executives and celebrities for the grave sin of believing last year what everyone else believed last year; the abject confessions and repentance of those figures; and the signs testifying that “Beto is our Christ.” The disconnect arises because liberalism as an official theory denies, or at least downplays, its own political-theological commitments. This theoretical denial is, however, ultimately untenable, because liberalism as a lived regime destabilizes the conditions for its own persistence. The theory and the regime are systematically, not merely contingently, out-of-sync.
Liberalism and Progressivism
One final preliminary issue: should we make a distinction here between liberalism and so-called progressivism? Yes, but mostly no. Historically speaking, progressivism is an offshoot of liberalism, but it is not as though it is a betrayal or distortion of it, or as though one could return to a liberalism that does not give rise to progressivism. Progressivism is the child and heir of liberalism, its purified and logically consistent expression. Progressivism is just what happens when the Festival of Reason has overcome the most obvious villains—deposed the monarchs and slaughtered the priests—and then looks for new villains to play their assigned part in the great liturgy. Progressivism is what happens when one follows the logic of human liberation to its endpoint, overriding all the culturally contingent limitations and shaky conceptual barriers, like the public/private distinction and the distinction between state organs and the corporate form, that progressives like Robert Hale showed to be intellectually untenable. When the arch-progressive John Dewey speaks in grandiloquent tones of “great movements for human liberation” it is because he takes himself to be carrying out the liberal project, not hijacking or betraying it.
The rest of the article can be read here: